Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 12 of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2. Catch up with our weekly reviews of previous episodes here. Not seen Season 1? Click here to see where you can watch it online.
Nicole. That’s the name now given to Holly, June’s baby. Like Offred, her identity has been taken away from her, given a new moniker to fit her Gilead-ordained purpose. In the case of Serena and Commander Waterford, that purpose is prized possession, a revered object that’s more accessory than tiny human, right down to the constant changes of clothes that Serena delights in.
It’s those kind of tiny details that make this penultimate episode of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 so effective – the small touches, like Serena’s rigid view that breastfeeding is essential, even though she can’t bear to have June anywhere near Nicole. That, however, removes the stimulus that keeps June’s body producing milk, leaving the whole group in something of a pickle. For Serena, it’s a question of logistics, but for June, it’s a horrible, heart-wrending moment that separates her from her child several times over. (Aunt Lydia, either obliviously or cruelly, tries to comfort her with news that other households want her next – and offers a free muffin from a bribery basket.)
It falls to Commander Waterford to arrange a clandestine reunion between June and her newborn to start stimulating milk production again – a meeting that would only leave June even more psychologically and emotionally distressed, on top of the existing exhaustion and stress that comes with a birth. Of course, one meeting wouldn’t solve the problem anyway, and so the Waterfords grudgingly allow June back into their home to nurse Holly.
While the tiny details that lead to that situation are well observed, though, it’s the big things in this episode that lead to something of an underwhelming, dubious chapter in The Handmaid’s Tale. The return of June to the Waterfords’ household for the umpteenth time marks a return of the show to a holding pattern that has already lost its novelty; the best episodes in this season have been the ones that find fresh ground to explore, rather than repeat old tricks, and it’s hard to find renewed enthusiasm for this power dynamic that has been rewarding even in this season, but sparks little interest by now.
Indeed, the most intriguing part involves Emily, who finds a new household with the mysterious Commander Lawrence. Any surprise that this rebellious former Colony member might be desired by another home is offset immediately by the man we meet: played by Bradley Whitford, he’s a disturbing, cruel figure whose behaviour is far more unpredictable than Joseph Fiennes’ softly spoken husband. Apparently the architect of Gilead’s economy, he’s a rambunctious figure who seems to talk candidly, coldly about the regime he’s founded, but treats his wife with an even nastier streak. Is he conflicted over his role in Gilead? Or is he testing her to see how she reacts?
Whitford’s presence alone is a welcome mix-up to the cast, but it also highlights what the show needs to do as it builds its second season, as he introduces not only new people to assess, but also opens up the opportunity for more details on how Gilead functions, when it was formed, and what might have happened to those (like Serena) who were passionate about the cause at one point and are perhaps now more jaded.
With one episode left in Season 2, Lawrence feels like a key part of the show’s world-building for its third season – and that only underlines the hurried way in which the series seems to be tying up less successful loose ends, or the uneven way in which it’s padding out existing plot lines to last until the finale.
And that brings us back to the Waterford household, where Nick crosses path with June, daring to utter to her that their baby is beautiful. He proposes that they run away to Hawaii – remember Hawaii? – a suggestion that’s almost as ridiculous as Commander Waterford attempting to reignite his affair with June, an act that is entirely implausible, or renders his character as entirely stupid.
Nothing, though, is more implausible than the behaviour of Eden, who is discovered to have actually run away with Isaac, the other guard introduced a couple of episodes ago. The notion that Emily would have an affair, given her devout upbringing, was already hard to swallow, but fleeing Gilead altogether is downright illogical. It’s telling, then, that the writers decide to write her subplot out as quickly as possible, bringing the couple back to Gilead and then executing them – and, as if to make sure their narrative arc blends in with its grim surroundings, they do so in a truly nasty way: by tying them to a ball and chain and pushing them off a diving board into a deep swimming pool. Serena and June watch on, both seemingly trying to work out the best next step, including June nursing her own baby. Rather than worry more about such little details, though, The Handmaid’s Tale needs to put added thought into its bigger picture, if it wants to sustain momentum going into Season 3.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 1 and 2 are available on-demand through Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it online on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription – with a 7-day free trial.
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